For many freshmen, their first college basketball season can seem overwhelming. On a daily basis, newcomers learn that dominating in high school and in AAU play doesn’t necessarily equate to the next level. But for Virginia guard Justin Anderson, the start of his college career has been a relief.
The most highly regarded recruit Coach Tony Bennett has lured to Charlottesville, Anderson has been in the spotlight since he dunked as a fifth-grader growing up in Montross, Va. The All-Met was the rare prospect to attend Montrose Christian for four years, and eventually became the youngest member of the USA basketball U-17 team that won a world championship in 2010.
But reflecting back on all that notoriety earlier this month, Anderson said he’s happy to be done with the hype that is inevitable given the AAU basketball culture that dominates basketball recruiting these days. And the maturity he has gained from the experience will be essential if he is to be a key cog for the Cavaliers this season.
“If I could do it all over again, sometimes I wish I didn’t get all the spotlight that I had,” Anderson said. “Sometimes your head starts to get big and sometimes you might not be able to control it, and then you start letting that push over into not working on your game as hard. I got hit by that bug.
“I always told my younger friends: ‘It’s okay to have the stardom. It’s okay to be the big name in your area. But stay focused on the things that matter. Stay focused on getting better. Stay focused on being a better person. Stay focused on being better in the classroom.’
“These are the things I’m just starting to learn into college, so these are the things I’m implementing in college instead of coming to college and going wild and going crazy. It’s a good thing, but sometimes I look back and I say, ‘Man I wish this didn’t go the way it went.’ ”
During his first two years at Montrose Christian, Anderson played second fiddle to players like Isaiah Armwood (George Washington), Mouphtau Yarou (Villanova), Terrence Ross (Toronto Raptors) and Josh Hairston (Duke), and his statistics reflected that. Even as a junior, when he originally committed to Maryland before former Coach Gary Williams retired, some wondered if Anderson would ever be more than a physical specimen.
But his maturity process on the court really took hold last year, when he showed off more than the ability to produce spectacular dunks. Blessed with a physique that has been NBA-ready since the ninth grade — Anderson is now listed as 6 feet 6 and 226 pounds — and athleticism that rivals anyone in the country, Anderson embraced defense under Coach Stu Vetter and worked on his outside shot.
Those skills should make him a vital part of Virginia’s rotation this year. Anderson could guard multiple positions in Bennett’s pack-line defense because he’s physically advanced compared with most freshmen, and his explosiveness should provide energy off the bench.
When asked about Anderson earlier this month, Bennett lumped him in with the rest of the freshman class, saying they show flashes of talent in practice but are still playing in “segments.”
But Anderson is taking a patient approach ingratiating himself in Bennett’s system. It’s a trait he started to develop earlier than most because of the way his high school years went.
“Sometimes people forget, like players coming into their new seasons, maybe even NBA, college or high school basketball, they start to think that they have to do something different, but I’m going to continue to play my game and play with passion, with energy, intensity, the physicality God blessed me with,” Anderson said.
“I think my freshman year is gonna be a year where I play my heart out every possession that I get and hopefully it turns into positive things.”